The Chicken Church

Critics of the Chicken Church say its architect inadvertently laid an egg.

Though built in 1944, the Church by the Sea in Madeira Beach, Florida only recently got unwanted attention after Internet images of the chapel went viral. A photographer had noticed that, from just the right spot, its highest windows resemble eyes, and some roofing tiles have the look of wings and a beak. When the pictures flashed around the world, hundreds of visitors turned up to gawk and take photos.

To some members, the attention is welcome. “We were completely unaware it had become a hit on the Internet,” says parishioner Dee Dee Parker. “But I’m glad we can make people smile.”

Others are making clucking sounds and consider the attention something of a chicken “pox”. As one employee says, “We’re not fond of it being called the ‘Chicken Church’. It’s attracting people to us for all the wrong reasons. I don’t think they’re attracted to come in and worship. I think they’re making fun of it.”

Even so, the original design of the church served a useful purpose. A lighted cross atop the chapel helped generations of sea workers navigate the waters offshore, and the building helped them get their bearings: they knew the landmark’s sides denoted east and west, and its front and back faced north and south. The church ensured sailors had more than a wing and a prayer when finding their way home.

And despite all the flaws of the Church as a whole, that’s still the mission — to guide all of us back to our loving Father. But, at least in some evangelical circles, there’s a very real sense that Christians have lost their guts and gumption when it comes to challenging sin in the world; that believers have embraced moral compromise and accommodation; and that most of Christianity now cowers behind the constraints of political correctness. In short, many look at us and see a chicken Church, always aflutter and afraid.

Ironically, those outside see exactly the opposite. They scorn us for being harsh and judgmental, quick to throw stones but infuriatingly slow to see our own sin. In their view, we’re cocky and hypocritical, crowing about our imagined moral superiority like sanctimonious roosters. A chicken Church of another kind.

So let me offer a bit of a solution born of a clear New Testament priority that’s often overlooked. Though Jesus does challenge those who hurt themselves and others with their sin, his first response is always love and the offer of spiritual healing. He reserves his anger and judgment, not for the sinners — like the corrupt tax collector, Zaccheus, or the woman caught in adultery — but for the religious leaders who refuse to admit their sin.

“Hypocrites!” he thunders. “You’re like whitewashed tombs — beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with… impurity.” (Matt. 23: 27)

The apostle Paul goes a step further when he tells the Church:

“I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers… I meant you’re not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or… abusive, a drunkard, or cheats people… It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning…. You must remove the evil person among you.” (1 Cor. 5:9-13)

And even that is a very last resort, reserved for those who have no genuine intention of changing. The point is, nobody forces us to make a full commitment to Christ but, once we do, we’re held to a higher standard and accountable to each other in the church, with the understanding that we’ll treat each other with honesty tempered by unconditional love, patience and gentleness. When every one of us recognizes our need for God’s grace and forgiveness, we truly can grow and overcome our sin, with the help of God’s power and the encouragement of His people.

As one of the worst of sinners, I’m so blessed to be in a church family where sin is confronted honesty, lovingly and patiently, but where the focus is on gradual progress, not instant perfection. Perhaps if we all do a better job of admitting our own weakness — with courage and confidence that we’ll still be accepted — we’ll have the credibility we need to reach out to the skeptics and the scared, offering compassion, not condemnation; and redemption, not recrimination.

Do we have a chicken church when it comes to sin and love? On that issue, it all depends on where you stand.